Where Spider-Man Fits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

You think it's easy just dropping Spider-Man into the Avengers? There's lots of heavy lifting that needs to get done first...

This article contains potential spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and other Marvel stuff.  It has been updated to reflect recent developments like the casting of Tom Holland as Spider-Man and the reveal of Jon Watts as the Spider-Man reboot director.

Spider-Man is finally coming home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps you heard about this. We can’t imagine that anyone was talking about it all that much, after all.

In all seriousness, this is a very big deal. Aside from the fact that it immediately revitalizes the Spider-Man franchise (which had been showing signs of wear and tear recently) and opens up a boatload of potentially great stories that can be told, it’s also a historic piece of cooperation between Disney and Sony. Hollywod studios generally aren’t known for sharing multi-billion dollar pieces of intellectual property like Spider-Man. Yet, here we are.

There’s little in the way of hard facts available just yet. All we know for certain is that Spidey is all but locked in to appear in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and then he’ll star in a solo film to be released on July 28th, 2017. Andrew Garfield won’t be back, nor will director Marc Webb. Tom Holland is your new Spider-Man, and Jon Watts (Clown, Cop Car) will direct. Marvel has promised a new trilogy of Spider-Man movies, and with a six movie deal likely in place for young Mr. Holland, we can expect to see him in Captain America: Civil War and probably Avengers: Infinity War – Part One and Part Two.

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But you don’t just drop a character as big as Spider-Man into a mega-franchise that has, so far, done just fine without him. Spidey now has to play by a different set of rules, and based on what has already been established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we can start to map out what to expect. Well, more or less…

No More Origin Stories

Even though the new movies are going to establish Peter Parker as a high schooler once again, chances are, we aren’t going to get another origin movie any time soon. Considering the backlash against The Amazing Spider-Man, even before it became obvious that the franchise was on shaky creative ground, Marvel and Sony have probably learned their lesson. Spider-Man’s origin has now been told, in detail, in two feature films, and iconic moments from his comic book history have already been more than adequately explored (to varying degrees of effectiveness) across three others.

In other words, audiences know who Spider-Man is. They know what kind of world he operates in. They know the broad strokes of his story. Even with a new actor in the role and the understanding that this is (essentially) a reboot, nobody needs to see Uncle Ben croak again in order to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Right? Right. Good.

But where does he fit in the grand scheme of things?

Spider-Man will make his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Captain America: Civil War. I’ll bet you at least two cartridges of web-fluid that Spidey will be introduced as a character who has been operating in one form or another for a little while before we actually meet him in that movie.

In the early days of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics (part of the updated Marvel continuity that helped inspire the films) Peter was told by SHIELD shortly after he put on a costume and went public that they had their eyes on him. You can’t have someone with Spider-Man’s power levels running around, even if he thinks he’s being discreet, and not have it get noticed by a super-secret government agency that specifically deals with superhumans.

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The Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series, Marvel’s most recent animated take on the wall-crawler, took that concept one step further and made Spidey part of a team of teenaged superheroes who all get sent on missions by Agent Coulson, who is in deep cover as a high school principal. Ummmm…I wouldn’t expect to see this. But again, if you’re looking for an easy way to tie a novice hero into an otherwise fairly well-regulated Marvel Universe, then look for the SHIELD connection.

This does lead nicely to…

The Civil War Problem

[related article – Captain America: Civil War and the Future of Marvel Phase 3]

Spider-Man could be a pretty important supporting character in Captain America: Civil War. In the comics, Spidey found himself torn between doing what his scientific idol (Tony Stark) wanted, which was to get superhumans to register with the government so that they could be more organized, and the more surprisingly anti-authoritarian stance adopted by Captain America. If Peter is indeed in his mid to late teens in these movies, then he’s at a particularly impressionable age, so he might not realize what a total douchebag maneuver the Superhuman Registration Act is. It also makes it easy to introduce him as a gifted intern working for Tony Stark, for example.

The problem here is that one of the most iconic moments of Civil War was Peter Parker’s public, voluntary unmasking and revelation of his identity to the world, which he did as a show of solidarity with Stark’s ideals, and as an attempt to get other superhumans to come forward and do the same. It’s a nice gesture, but there are two reasons that I don’t expect this scene to play out in Captain America 3:

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First, there simply aren’t enough superhumans active in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to give Spidey the motivation to do this. In the comics, there are thousands of masked superhumans with secret identities. Secret identities aren’t much of a concern in the MCU, and Spidey may be the first one we meet who needs to actively maintain one. What’s more, even if we assume this is set during the earliest days of his career, Spider-Man certainly hasn’t been a public figure at this point, so a press conference unmasking wouldn’t necessarily be as big a moment. “Hi, I’m a jerky kid who has been terrorizing muggers and car thieves in Queens for the last year.” Cue J. Jonah Jameson headlines, etc…

There’s another, more practical issue with this, as well. The matter of Peter Parker’s Spider-Man as a matter of public record was soon erased from Marvel Comics lore as part of the reset that eliminated his marriage to Mary Jane Watson. That’s the kind of continuity non-logic that you can get away with on the comics page, but not on the screen. Spidey will be showing up in six movies over the next five or six years. There’s no putting the secret identity genie back in the bottle in this world, so it’s tough to see Marvel and Sony going down this road.

Still, we’ve learned that Marvel have found ways to present iconic moments from the comics without being slavishly devoted to them, so you never know. We may see some kind of unmasking…it just might not be related to Spider-Man.

Avengers Disassembled

When you consider where the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently stands in its storytelling, Spider-Man is arriving at just the right time. Much of Marvel’s movie output has been influenced both visually and from a story standpoint, by their comics output from the early 21st century.

Visually, the Iron Man films owe much to the work of artist Adi Granov, and Iron Man 3 was the loosest possible adaptation of the Extremis storyline by Granov and Warren Ellis. Samuel L. Jackson owes his role as Nick Fury, arguably the most important character in the entire franchise, to that character’s visual reinterpretation in the pages of The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. The look of both Captain America films, but especially the story of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is lifted from the pages of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s spectacular run on the character from this era, as well. I could go on, but you get the point.

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But there’s still one missing piece from this era: Avengers Disassembled. The how and why of it aren’t relevant (and are far too convoluted for me to explain here), but essentially, the Avengers splintered before Civil War, and a new team took their place. You know what else was a key component of Avengers Disassembled? A little Thor story called Ragnarok, which is, not at all coincidentally, the title of Thor 3.

Moments of Avengers: Age of Ultron had a distinct “disassembled” vibe to them, and it did lead to the formation of a new team. And who else became a full-blown card carrying Avenger when it was time for a New Avengers team to come together? Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, that’s who. That Doctor Strange guy, too…and the thought of Strange and Spidey eventually trading barbs on screen is too delicious.

What About Miles Morales?

I wrote a whole article making the case for Miles Morales as a potential Spider-Man for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which you can read here (it’s short, don’t worry). But the reality is…it probably isn’t going to happen. 

For now, at least.

Miles Morales would help provide some much needed diversity to the superhero blockbuster scene, and he would certainly spare us the tedium of seeing the same Spider-Man character beats repeated yet again on the screen. I firmly believe his time will come, though, but we’re not quite there yet. First they have to establish the new Peter Parker.

Could a Solo Movie Scale Things Down?

I’ve often felt that the scale of recent Spider-Man movies is too big. Spidey would be more at home saving his neighborhood in Queens than being a public figure saving all of New York City from certain destruction. When Spidey is the focus of isolated superhero movies, the grander scale becomes more important, but in a cinematic universe where NYC has already dealt with an alien invasion and America witnessed Washington DC get decimated by falling SHIELD helicarriers,  the idea of a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” operating in the shadows of an outer borough suddenly makes a little more sense.

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It’s a problem that superhero movies in general and Marvel movies in particular are going to have to address sooner or later. Each succeeding superhero movie can’t just be a bigger and louder orgy of third act destruction. With any luck, Spider-Man will help serve as a contrast to the more world-saving efforts of his more high-powered peers. Let the Avengers save the world and the Guardians save the galaxy. Spidey should be the guy who saves his neighborhood.

For those wondering where Spidey has been all this time, and why he hasn’t shown up already consider this. Spider-Man is known for being a bit neurotic, so even if he was powered up, costumed, and active at the time of the first Avengers film, is he necessarily the kind of guy who thinks he could just step up and play with the big boys?

And can we please allow Spidey to be funny and not such a mope in these movies for cryin’ out loud?

Speaking of which…

Who Should Write It?

Conspicuously absent from Marvel’s announcement of Jon Watts as the director of the new Spider-Man movie was the name of a writer. There’s a very short answer to this, and then a somewhat longer one. The short answer is Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains the greatest Spider-Man TV series of all time, and Joss Whedon’s snappy style applied to Spidey and friends would be a dream. The problem is that Joss Whedon has recently expressed reservations about continuing on in the Marvel sandbox, and it’s tough to blame him after the exhausting Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But there’s still Drew Goddard to consider. He had been all set to write and direct Spidey spinoff, The Sinister Six for Sony, and was even named as an early candidate to direct Marvel’s solo Spidey flick. It would be a bold choice, and he already did a bunch of heavy lifting for a movie we may never see. We expect an announcement on this front some time soon, though.

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